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Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5, Pique Dame Overture / Kitajenko, Gurzenich Orchester Koln

Tchaikovsky / Gurzenich-orchester Koln / Kitajenko
Release Date: 02/28/2012 
Label:  Oehms   Catalog #: 667   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Conductor:  Dmitrij Kitajenko
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 5. Queen of Spades: Overture Dimitri Kitaenko, cond; Cologne Gürzenich O OEHMS 667 (SACD: 53:45)

Elsewhere in this issue I review an Oehms SACD containing a live performance of Brahms’s Second Symphony by the Hamburg Philharmonic led by Simone Young. I was highly critical of the recorded sound, noting a most unnatural orchestral balance that I attributed largely to poor engineering. Here, in contrast, we have from Read more the same Oehms label recordings of two Tchaikovsky works, this time by a different orchestra and a different conductor but the same engineering and production team, and the difference is almost beyond description. The current SACD may well blow your mind, if it doesn’t blow your sound system first.

What could possibly account for such an astonishing variance between these two releases, other than the fact that the Brahms symphony was recorded in 2008, three years before this Tchaikovsky album? Might it be that the engineer and producer had three years to learn how better to employ the multichannel technology? Could the acoustics of Hamburg’s Laeiszhalle where the Brahms was recorded live be that bad? Or, might it be that these Tchaikovsky performances were recorded in Cologne under studio conditions, thereby giving the engineering and production team greater control over the final results? This is not necessarily to say that studio recordings are superior and preferable to live ones—I’ve heard some fantastic recordings in the latter category—but in this particular instance, everything comes together in one of those opportune confluences of events that produces the perfect recording of the perfect performance.

This Tchaikovsky Fifth is of such persuasive power and eloquence it may just convince you that it’s the composer’s greatest symphony. Fate, seen as inner conflict and turmoil in the Fourth Symphony, is transformed in the Fifth into majestic triumph. Though Tchaikovsky never articulated a specific program for the work, his cryptic “XXX” in correspondence with his brother Modeste and his benefactress Nadezhda von Meck regarding the symphony’s Fate motive is now generally believed to be code for the composer’s homosexuality. From this, it’s not a big stretch to conclude that the symphony represents Tchaikovsky’s hard-won victory over paralyzing guilt and self-loathing through the Fate theme’s glorious metamorphosis in the closing pages.

Written in the short space of the summer of 1888, the Fifth Symphony goes further than the Fourth in exploring ideas of cyclic form and thematic transformation. The key relationships between movements are also unusual, resulting in what one critic referred to as a plagal progression—IV–I—as opposed to the more common dominant key relationship of V–I.

All of this is but of passing interest compared to this performance by Dmitri Kitaenko and the Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra. Words like intense, vivid, vibrant, exciting, dynamic, and electrifying can go only so far in conveying the impression of this reading and the impact of the recording.

Kitaenko maintains a tight grip over the orchestra, profiling the march-like tread of the first movement’s main theme in sharp relief against the yearning second subject. The entire score, from beginning to end, is masterfully calculated as to tempo and timing of dramatic events to make the most of Tchaikovsky’s gradually building tension. But the best is reserved for the finale, in which Kitaenko unleashes all of that pent-up energy in one, huge, explosive paroxysm.

The Cologne ensemble, probably on no one’s list of the world’s top 10 orchestras, sounds like it should be. The players have obviously been drilled, disciplined, and prepared to within an inch of their lives, and they perform as if their futures hang in the balance on every single note. The brass section plays with a wonderfully smooth, blended sound that is at once mellow yet penetratingly focused, like high-beam headlights. The winds are bright and perfectly balanced. And above, or through it all, come the strings, rich and creamy with a slightly darkened finish that suits Tchaikovsky’s Russian sound so well.

This is not only a Tchaikovsky Fifth you may well listen to again and again to the exclusion of all others but it’s a demonstration-quality recording you won’t believe until you’ve heard it. At just under four minutes, the accompanying Queen of Spades Overture is almost a throwaway, especially if you already have the complete opera. But for the symphony, this is urgently recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 5 in E minor, Op. 64 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Conductor:  Dmitrij Kitajenko
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1888; Russia 
Date of Recording: 3/2011 
Venue:  Cologne, Germany 
Queen of Spades, Op. 68: Introduction by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Conductor:  Dmitrij Kitajenko
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1890; Russia 
Date of Recording: 3/2011 
Venue:  Cologne, Germany 

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